Dr. Andrew Keeping, Supervisor, Development Analytics at ATCO Power Canada Ltd, reflects on his career pathway from completing his PhD with Dr. Rick Collins in Molecular Genetics to joining Boston Consulting Group to leading a business development group. Andrew shares strategies for leveraging skills from graduate school in the private sector, breaking stereotypes, and memories of 2D gels that look like the night sky in Algonquin Park.
Can you describe your career path since graduating from MoGen?
I joined the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto in 2011 after my PhD. For two years I worked on projects with banks, insurance companies, household goods manufacturers and natural resources companies in the US and Canada. In 2013, I moved back out west and helped start the Calgary office of BCG, helping technology and utilities companies prepare for future competition and entering new markets.
In the spring of 2014 I joined ATCO Power, a subsidiary of the ATCO group of companies that owns, operates and develops power generation facilities. ATCO Power is currently in the process of renewing five billion dollars worth of major infrastructure, and it’s pretty exciting to be a part of deciding how that money will be invested in the next several years!
Tell us about your current job?
I lead a business development team at ATCO Power working on projects to build power plants in Canada and elsewhere. My team is responsible for developing models that describe the characteristics of each project, and for creating presentations and other written materials necessary for obtaining investment in the projects. We are also called on frequently to help shape the company’s strategy for the short and long term. With a mix of project and portfolio work and a wide range of technologies, markets, and commercial arrangements in development, there’s always something interesting for us to work on.
How did your experiences as a graduate student in MoGen influence your career trajectory?
I think it’s useful to have a clear point of view on what it is you enjoy about what you’re doing today. When I decided to pursue grad school, I enjoyed studying catalytic RNA. Over time, as I was exposed to other fields of study and professions, I realized that what I enjoyed most about my research was the application of a rigorous process to answer intellectually interesting questions. That’s a different vantage point. From there, my potential career trajectory included academia and a host of other options.
How did you come to the decision that you wanted to pursue a career outside of academia?
I wanted to make an informed decision about my career path post-PhD, so I attended many seminars offered by the Life Science Career Development Society in addition to talking with post-docs and professors. I made the decision to pursue a career outside of academia after a very long period of reflection. Among other things, I considered what my priorities were likely to be in my thirties and how they might be different than in my twenties. After deciding that management consulting was my best option immediately following grad school, I focused on building the relationships and experience necessary to be a competitive candidate for a job in that field. That process was equally important because it confirmed my desire to pursue the private sector via consulting.
How did you leverage the skills and training you obtained during your PhD into your first job?
In many ways! At the highest level, the approach we took to thinking through experiments and building a body of work around a topic were applicable to testing hypotheses (and skewering myths) in business. Practical experience gained presenting my work at lab meetings and departmental seminars were also applicable as I often gave presentations to clients. At a tactical level, the experience I gained in Excel while processing bioinformatic data was applicable as several of my projects involved developing models or tools in Excel.
What was the most difficult part of transitioning away from bench science?
In science we create stories that follow a deductive, or “top-down” approach by explaining all your results and then deriving a conclusion. In business you need to use deductive reasoning in your day-to-day work, but when telling stories you have to follow an inductive approach where you lead with your conclusions and then provide the evidence in support. I found that to be a really big adjustment.
Did having a PhD help you in your career?
Credentials have value and are a part of how you distinguish yourself to potential employers. In general, people will assume from your PhD that you have very strong quantitative analysis skills and that you are logical and hypothesis-driven in your approach to problems. I’m not sure people fully appreciate the project management skills you gain through a PhD, and you will need to overcome some negative stereotypes around communication and social skills. For me, having a PhD was key to being offered positions at both the Boston Consulting Group and ATCO Power. At both companies, I have been proactive about my professional development in order to quickly move beyond the stereotypes, both good and bad.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job?
There is an art to leading through influence and steering a group of people working on a project towards a good outcome. Depending on the subject at hand, the personality of those involved, motivations arising from unrelated issues, and any number of other unknown factors, you will need to adjust your approach, often in real time. I think it’s something that you never fully master, but get better at over the course of your career. That requires patience and a constant willingness to learn and take ownership of feedback!
The most rewarding aspect of my job is what I’m able to do with the freedom I’ve been given as a manager. On the analytical side, my team is regularly finding insights that help shape the direction taken by our colleagues throughout the company. With respect to written materials, we create narratives about all our growth projects and present them to our executive. We also create the materials that they, in turn, take to the board of directors to secure investment. Beyond these core duties, we have license to identify and pursue anything that we believe would be valuable for the company. This has led us to work on some really intellectually interesting projects.
What are your favourite memories of graduate school?
I used to run a lot of 2D protein gels and one 2D gel in particular looked like the night sky as seen while camping in Algonquin Park. Related to that, camping with friends from MoGen in Algonquin Park. The entire protocol for growing and harvesting Neurospora, the fungus that I worked on, has a satisfying rhythm to it, and the macro scale of it is fun in a “mad scientist” kind of way. Getting together with a group of close friends from the department virtually every Thursday night (and some Friday mornings). Attending Neurospora conferences at Asilomar with Rick. There are many more on both the science and social sides of the ledger, but that’s a representative list.
What was the most important thing you learned in graduate school?
As a grad student you have signed up for your own personal, often protracted austerity program during a time of life where your friends in the private sector are starting to make some real money. That can be rough but it gives you an opportunity to learn how to derive happiness from things money can’t buy, which in turn is good preparation for how to be disciplined when you do start making money.
What was the best career advice you received when you were at the end of your PhD?
The best career advice I received during my PhD came closer to the middle. Whether you want to pursue academia or a non-academic path, it’s wise to start more focused preparations with a few years of lead time. That way you are more likely to stand out as a candidate for your preferred position.
What advice do you have for students who are looking for career options outside of academia?
Take the time to reflect on what motivates you, what frustrates you, and what it is that you enjoy about what you’re doing and have done in the past. Be wide ranging and methodical in considering your options. Have a long-term objective, but remain open to different paths to that objective that you hadn’t thought of before. In my opinion, the idea that “fortune favours the prepared mind”, in a private sector context, means that you should be able to recognize and seize fleeting opportunities that others may miss.